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The Venice Biennale is surely first and foremost a competition. In showcasing hundreds of artists from countries all over the world it would be impossible not to feel bombarded by visual information from the second you walk into the very first room. Take your average Tate exhibition and times it by ten, this art show certainly isn’t one you can whizz around in a couple of hours. Due to the scale of the exhibition every artist must compete with one another for the viewer’s attention, there is somewhat of a static struggle as the works seem to quietly fight for a place in our long-term memories. This colossal exhibition spanning two separate venues and small galleries dotted around the city is one of the biggest and most prestigious art events in the world. It was first held in 1895 but has expanded in both scale and ambition over time; in the early 20th century the show began to take works from international artists and ever since has gone on to consistently prove that the world is filled with some seriously talented people.
The bygone palatial interiors of the Arsenale venue that we visited first were immediately impressive and like nothing I have ever seen before; the vast rooms with high echoing ceilings, thick wooden beams and stark white walls covering crumbling debris played homage to the importance of the art work and its capacity to transform a space, and bring with it its own mood and atmosphere. Huge rooms filled with striking and exciting works went into further rooms even more awe-inspiring than the first – the building presented the viewer with a long and visually-stimulating journey, and to spend time reading about each artist and being fully absorbed in what they had produced would take days. The works, indicative of the state of contemporary art and the art market, were varied – ranging from 2D detailed photorealism drawings and sculpture to multimedia videos and performance art. What I really admired about the show as a whole, noticeable from the outset, was that it was far more accessible than I anticipated. The works presented were not too difficult or challenging, yet in some cases confronted some serious themes that were explored poignantly. The show seemed sophisticated and in this sense it was successful, as if it couldn’t draw too much criticism from those who mock art for trying to appear beyond comprehension.
The first hour of my time in the Arsenale was almost quite emotional. It was refreshing to see such a large collection of work created by artists who seem to really care and live for their art. The dedication to their practice was shown not only in the scale of their work (R. Crumb representing the USA meticulously illustrated the entire book of Genesis in 224 framed pages taking up an entire room) but in the attention to detail and the quality of what they had produced – evidently the result of years of fine-tuning and a strive for perfection. However, as the exhibition continued and started to gradually head further towards new media art as the show intended, the realisation that there was simply too much to enjoy came over me. As one of my friends put it, the show is somewhat of an ‘Ikea of art’. Behind each corner lies a new section with a new mood and ambience, and while at first this was exciting, after a while each section started to diminish the next. My ability to be impressed seemed to suffer, and began to make me question whether having such a huge display of work that will overload the spectator is really a good idea.
Nevertheless, after my tiring day at Arsenale we went to the second venue the next day – Giardini, which was the initial site of the Biennale and the event is still held primarily in the pavilions that were built there at the time of the show’s launch. The Central Pavilion was again a large building housing a huge range of international artists in a slightly more modern setting, and this time the exhibition was much easier to get lost in. The layout was muddled and hard to navigate around even with a map; I was convinced that we had missed things but due to the scale of the park I was eager to get around as much of it as possible instead of re-tracing my steps. The majority of this area was made up of smaller country pavilions, all of varying sizes and appearance, which made the gardens seem somewhat like an artistic theme park. There were quite often queues for some of the more popular venues, and each country had their own distinctive theme, whether a collaboration of artists or a singular work by an individual.
I found Giardini a little more difficult as a show – the work shown was slightly more, dare I say it, avant-garde than what I had seen the day before. Out of the twenty-nine separate pavilions, at the end of the day there were only two that I had circled and wanted to visit for a second time. Unfortunately there were quite a lot of buildings where I was quite happy to walk in and walk straight back out again; the sheer amount of art meant that I didn’t give a lot of the work that didn’t look like ‘my kind of thing’ a chance. The experience seemed to change me as a viewer of art, I became extremely difficult to impress and simply didn’t have time for work that didn’t immediately jump out at me. Whereas before I would purposely try to make some sort of personal sense out of less obvious pieces, I found myself becoming easily frustrated and felt apathetic towards a lot of the work – I felt as if I had seen it all before. There was one point where I realised I had made a large error of judgement, where I begrudgingly wandered into a video piece in the Czech Republic pavilion entitled ‘Liberation, Or Alternatively…’ by Zbynek Baladrán. I expected to just catch a glimpse of it and leave but instead had to catch myself and pause for a second because what the video was saying was far more interesting than I anticipated. I sat down and watched the whole thing twice; the piece is now a key reference in my dissertation.
The Venice Biennale was definitely not easy. It was challenging as an artist who often needs time and explanations to connect with someone else’s work as there was simply too much of it to take in on a personal level. It’s interesting now thinking back on what I remember most vividly, and in many cases it’s not necessarily the provocative and loud pieces that stayed with me. Despite facing quite a lot of disappointment and a few venues that barely received ten seconds of my newly dismissive attention, I still came away from the show blown away by what I had seen. This major art event is meant to display the work of some of the very best contemporary artists in the world, and to take it all in in the space of two days was completely exhausting. Nonetheless, the show was definitely something worth visiting and I will no doubt be back again at some point in the future. Many years after it was founded the Venice Biennale continues to successfully transport the viewer to little constructed worlds illustrating global ideologies, issues and matters, proving that through the haze and frustrations attached to more challenging work, international contemporary art has certainly not lost its ability to amaze and inspire.